Johanna Schneller reviews movies for the Globe and Mail, and generally does a good job of it. But occasionally I wonder where she’s coming from. Take, for example, her review on November 4 of Jeff Skoll’s Participant Productions company. (See his photo.) In an article titled “Lights, Camera, Liberal Angst!” Schneller proclaims herself to be a “card-carrying American Democrat,” yet announces that she reacted to Skoll’s project with skepticism. It took me a while to figure out what she was skeptical about, or even whether she was bragging or confessing when declaring her skepticism.
She does some investigative journalism by interviewing Participant’s president, Ricky Strauss, even “badgering” him, and in the end it’s unclear whether she thinks she has uncovered something about which one should properly be suspicious. But I guess her opinion is mostly favorable, for she “sincerely wishes him and Participant good afternoon, and good luck.” This suggests that she must consider her skepticism a failing of her own, not warranted by anything Participant is doing.
So what was her problem then? What doubts might a liberal American Democrat realistically harbor? The answer, I think, does not reflect poorly on liberals, but rather on professional literary and drama critics. If you read between the lines you can see her problem: she’s a postmodernist. That’s not her fault; anyone whose post-graduate studies in the humanities occurred within the past thirty years will be steeped in it. Anyone a little older, however, will probably call those same theoretical assumptions “cultural relativism” instead, and may not have received such heavy doses of it at university.
Postmodern critics try not to let their values show. This comes from their assumption that evaluations are all merely arbitrary, non-rational, subjective expressions of preference. True, one may base one’s judgments on standards that are shared within one’s culture, but all cultures are local; there are no uuniversal values, hence nothing objectively valid about any values. Ultimately, what you have are just your biases and you’d better admit it and sound as open-minded as possible when writing your critical reviews. No cultures, and hence no values, are more advanced than any others.
Postmodernism is in full swing among literary critics and a few social theorists, but not many philosophers and no scientists at all. Originally it was intended as a liberating movement, for it undermined the arrogance of dogma. Unfortunately, it undermined other serious intellectual projects as well: religion, politics, and the arts. As Erich Fromm used to remind us, a true relativist could not even criticize Nazis, for their politics genuinely reflected the German culture of their period. Fromm himself believed that whole cultures might be “sick.“ I agree.
Probably Schneller half agrees with him too, though she is still guarded about expressing her own values — a hesitance that she attributes to liberalism and expects of other liberals too. She declares, with a mixture of pride and angst, that liberals are better than conservatives at inhibiting the expression of their own values. She writes, “To our own credit and detriment, policing one’s own biases is part of the liberal’s credo. No matter how Leftie we are, we’re still more suspicious.” Suspiciousness means “monitoring our own fairness,” as well as the fairness of other liberals.
Thus she restrains any inclination to favor Participant Productions and “badgers” Strauss with questions about his liberal “biases.” Are the company’s twenty-five employees all liberal? How do they determine if a film fits their mandate? Would they produce a script that advocated something they disagreed with, such as polygamy? Schneller seemingly assumes that if they are really liberal, they will do so, for the sake of “fairness.”
I don’t agree. Liberalism is not cultural relativism, not postmodernism. Liberals have values too, and don’t necessarily feel obliged to disguise them, for they can debate ethical, esthetic, political, and spiritual issues rationally. Valuing is as cognitive a process as any other aspect of judgment.
Indeed, we particularly need brave critics who openly refer to their own ethical and emotional responses when judging a drama. The supremacy of “new criticism” with its formal standards harmed our culture.
Strauss’s answers in her column show him to be well-grounded for living comfortably in his own liberal skin and contributing to a cultural flowering of Hollywood. I cannot always say as much for Schneller. Thus she notices a scene in North Country in which the female protagonist looks headed for casual sex with a coworker, yet never follows through with it. Schneller suspects that the sex was deleted so as not to call the character’s subsequent heroics into question. She asks Strauss whether they ever “pull their punches,” as with Theron’s non-sex scene. Apparently the only correct answer to her question would be no.
To be liberal, we are supposed to prefer stories in which the protagonist engages in casual sex. But why? Implicitly, her answer is: because such limits are censorious. Open-minded persons should prefer moral ambiguity. A good critic will not apply ethical standards when judging a character or a plot. Schneller doesn’t actually say that, of course. She would not make such a flat-footed argument. If we’re sophisticated we’ll know that without being told.
A week or two ago Schneller wrote a column about some films that show sex acts that are real, not simulated. She acknowledged disliking them, but instead of adducing moral grounds, she merely questioned whether an authentic sex act is “necessary” for the artistry of the film.
Such diffident criticism is not, as she suggests, a mark of liberalism. Plenty of liberals also dislike showing graphic sexual penetration on the screen. We do so because we care about the quality of our cultural environment and we aren’t shy about saying so. Participant Productions may be that kind of liberal company — one that is not “policing its biases” but producing stories that are plainly intended to point toward a better world. Nobody should apologize for that. Hooray for honest liberalism! And Johanna, we need critics who will let their values show. Please feel free.